⥮ Innovation is Not an Arms RaceNovember 20, 2011
The term “Post-PC” is one that has been thrown around a great deal this past year, and while we have certainly seen a dramatic shift in consumer preferences away from the desktop increasingly towards the mobile space, one concept that seems to have carried over from the desktop generation is the obsession over hardware specifications. As I mentioned in my last article, I feel that the present consumer mood towards mobile devices (particularly tablets and smartphones) dictates that people are looking primarily for technology that can work for them to accomplish a need or goal, rather than what’s under the hood.
But this hasn’t stopped companies from trying to differentiate their product using specs or form factor, almost to the point of complete abstraction. As with the PC market, the Android ecosystem is vast and diverse, with many manufacturers vying for the attention of a limited pool of consumers. Eventually, no matter how much R&D or design time you invest, what you end up with will undoubtedly start to resemble your competitors’ on at least some basic level. The end result is the need to bend the rules, and add visual flair or celebrity endorsements (which can turn out to be very successful, however misleading) to get your target audience in front of your product.
How then do we explain Apple’s success? After all, they have only three smartphones on the market currently and one tablet, and yet they continue to lead their respective product categories, and are rising in laptop market share. The answer involves many different elements acting in concert, but I think MG Siegler is on the right track:
During the PC years, specs [mattered] because there was one common dominant force in computing: Microsoft. Because Windows was everywhere, you could fairly reliably gauge the performance of one machine against another. But with the rise of the Mac and more importantly, smartphones and tablets, you can’t as easily stack machines up against one another performance-wise.
My MacBook Air doesn’t have the specs of a brand new HP PC laptop — but it still feels faster. Maybe it’s OS X, or maybe it’s the solid state drive. Point is, consumers don’t and shouldn’t care. They care about which machine will boot faster and which will be easier to navigate. Time to web matters.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say specs are dead, I do feel that they are no longer important as figures in a table, but rather in how they affect the feel of a product. In the end, it’s not about specs, power, or even competition, but rather accessibility, ease of use, well thought-out design, and devices for change. The post-PC era exists not only in currently popular produts but also on the fringe, verging on the mainstream, and in some cases may even be devices in search of a problem to solve.
Compare the commercial for the Droid RAZR above to Apple’s Siri as an example. The ad is full of nothing but use cases. Situations that make you think, “that could be me” and immediately make it feel more approachable. This is an aesthetic that runs throughout all of the iPad and iPhone commercials, and focuses on the why rather than the what.
That’s not to say that these sorts of innovations are only happening at Apple; there are plenty of Android and Linux-based devices that are doing their part to usher in the post-PC era, they just choose to manifest themselves in a more “homebrew-esque” fashion. Two notable examples that come to mind are FXI’s Cotton Candy prototype and the Raspberry Pi. Each of these proposes a number of use cases, and while perhaps unconventional, are important for just that reason; they potentially represent future mass-market applications of needs we didn’t know we had.
The post-PC era, while often portrayed in terms of “non-desktop” mobile computing, is in reality much more complex: it represents an entirely new way of thinking about digital products and experiences. We have reached a point of development in hardware specifications where it can no longer be used as a quantitative measure of the success or failure of a product. Instead consumers are unconsciously replacing it with a new qualitative metric of feel: incorporating ease of use, ecosystem, and how well it folds into everyday use cases. Those companies that are able to deconstruct how their users feel about their product (John Gruber also refers to this as consumer “affection”) will be able to better anticipate needs as (and perhaps even before) they arise.